Bicyclists secondary in Club Blvd. plan, city official says

Aug. 20, 2014 @ 05:44 PM

Accommodating bicyclists on West Club Boulevard isn’t a “primary objective” of a $350,000 traffic-calming project that will narrow five intersections in the Watts Hospital-Hillandale neighborhood, Durham’s transportation director says.
The proposed “neck-downs” on Club from Georgia Avenue to Maryland Avenue have drawn fire from bicyclists who say they’ll force them to weave, unsafely, in and out of the main flow of traffic.
But in speaking this week to Durham’s Bicycle & Pedestrian Advisory Commission, Transportation Director Mark Ahrendsen said city staffers feel the design is “not unsafe” and intend to proceed as long as Watts-Hillandale’s neighborhood association supports it.
That design is supposed to slow car and truck traffic and make it easier for pedestrians to cross Club Boulevard, he said, adding that engineers can’t always come up with a plan that can serve every form of traffic equally well.
“We considered the cyclists and realize they will have to share the same space as vehicles through the intersections,” Ahrendsen told the panel. “We realized that was part of the trade-off we came up with for this one.”
Commission members, however, appeared to agree with bicyclists on the safety issue.
The strongest comments on that score came from Scott Carter, a county appointee to the panel who’s also the husband of Durham school board Chairwoman Heidi Carter.
“I’d hate to be in a position a year after these neck-downs are installed where a bicyclist gets hurt or killed and it’s because they had to navigate [them], and then we’re in a crisis situation of trying to adjust after that,” he told Ahrendsen.
The panel, joined by several neighborhood activists in the audience, also voiced unease at the veto the city’s given the Watts Hospital-Hillandale Neighborhood Association over any design changes.
Officials in 2001 promised the neighborhood a series of traffic-calming projects, to include the neck-downs. Higher-priority initiatives elsewhere in the city delayed the neck-down installation, but officials are now following through with the original City Council promise, Ahrendsen said.
The neighborhood association to date has backed the project, in part because a redesign could lead to further delays. Ahrendsen estimated that it might take “two or three years” for the project to get back to the head of the line if it’s postponed.
But others were quick to note that Club Boulevard doesn’t serve Watts-Hillandale exclusively.
“It’s sounding a little bit like it only involves the neighborhood,” county delegate Jennifer McDuffie said. “Community is larger than that. We have a large cycling community in Durham, and a lot of people use that road.”
“This project is being funded by city taxpayer funds, not just the neighborhood,” added Cynthia Van Der Wiele, another county appointee to the commission.
That view received support from two Watts-Hillandale and Trinity Park neighborhood activists who attended the meeting, Walter Mullin and Martin Steinmeyer.
“Club Boulevard isn’t a private street; it’s a public commons,” Mullin said.
“When I speak as a representative of a neighborhood with the city, I do so on the assumption there’s a process that balances the neighborhood out with the interests of the wider community,” Steinmeyer added. “I only dare to do this if I know there’s somebody at a higher level balancing the other concerns.”
Another Watts-Hillandale resident, Galia Goodman, added that the neighborhood association isn’t speaking for all its constituents.
“The neighborhood as a whole does not necessarily accept this as the best solution,” Goodman said, making it clear she doesn’t agree with the plan. “The board has decided to speak with one voice, but we’re working on them.”
She also alluded to the death last year of Watts-Hillandale activist Seth Vidal, a software developer and avid biker killed when a hit-and-run motorist struck him on Hillandale Road.
“It’s not a done deal, as far as we’re concerned, until the spades go into the ground,” Goodman said. “Those of us on the other side really do not feel that only accepting the necessity for one group of citizens is a good thing. I want the pedestrians to be safe. But I lost a good, close friend last year where that road narrows on Hillandale, and I don’t want to have to bury anybody else because we weren’t paying attention.”
Ahrendsen said last week the project is on track for installation of the neck-downs to begin in May, provided the City Council approves a construction contract sometime this winter.
The council includes two Watts-Hillandale residents, Don Moffitt and Steve Schewel. Schewel has already signaled that he intends to take his cues from the neighborhood association.